Thursday, February 22, 2007

I'd rather be dead! (Part 1)

Today’s reflection was inspired by yesterday’s Old Testament reading for Morning Prayer, which came from the Book of Jonah.

It is long. Very, very long. I meant to comment on the section where Jonah actually goes to Nineveh, but somehow the fish part seemed important and…well, it got a little out of hand. Sue me.

As a result, however, I’m going to post it in two parts. I'm still working on the conclusion, to be honest, but I'm counting on the pressure of having the first part out there to force me to finish it soon. ;-)

I state at the outset that I do not believe this story to be “true” in a factual sense, but I am going to write about it as if it were---it’s a lot more fun that way!

(I never really got to have fun with the Bible as a fundamentalist. Pun intended.)


I *do*, however, believe it to be “true” in the sense that it tells us something very important about God—which is how I look at everything in the Bible.

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Jonah knew God tended to be loving and forgiving—and he didn’t like it one little bit.

When God told him to go to Nineveh and call on the residents there to repent from their wicked, wicked ways and turn to God, Jonah ran away rather than do it. He didn’t want God to forgive those nasty Ninevites. They deserved to be smitten, and if God was too nice to see that, well…Jonah wasn’t going to stick around and participate in God’s rolling over like a submissive dog for “those people.”

As we all know, God didn’t take too kindly to Jonah’s defiance.

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First there was the incident with the boat, the storm, and that big fish.

Jonah ran off to Joppa and jumped on a boat headed for Tarshish—which, to the average person in the 5th or 4th century BCE (when the Book of Jonah is believed to have been written), was essentially on another planet.

According to my New Revised Standard Version Bible, both cities were outside Israelite territory, so one wonders if Jonah believed God couldn’t get a visa to work over there. The Middle-Eastern Divine Immigration Service apparently missed the fact, however, that God didn’t have a green card.

“Our God is a mighty and awesome God!” This is a phrase very popular among the evangelicals I grew up with—and the story of Jonah proves the point. There is no subtlety in God’s response to Jonah’s desertion. There is no still, small voice (like that which woke tiny Samuel from his dreams) that calls inexorably to The Fugitive—no gentle exhortations to “do the right thing.”

No, there is one helluva thunderstorm.

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God seems to be big on thunderstorms as teaching tools. I get this, because I love them myself. Unlike a lot of people (my children included), I am not afraid of thunder and lightening. Respectful and cautious, yes—but not afraid. There is very little in nature that excites me quite as much as the grandeur of a lightening storm.

(If you are freakish like me in this respect, and you want to experience really grand thunderstorms, I recommend a trip to Wyoming. The two most amazing storms I’ve ever experienced took place there. But I digress…)

Storms get your attention. And they especially get your attention when you are on the water. They are frightening enough on land, but you can generally find some protection from the elements in a house, cave, etc. until the storm passes.

On water, however, you are very, very vulnerable. You lose any sense that you have power when you are in a storm on the water. Water offers no protection or respite from the deadly wind that would sweep you into it; the sheer weight of it will force the air from your body, as it rushes in to fill the void in your lungs. It will crush you as it drowns you.

I suspect that is why storms on the water appear so often in the Bible. Biblical writers saw them as God’s reminder to us that, no matter how much we would like to convince ourselves otherwise, we are puny little stick figures in a gale-force wind. We can—and will—be tossed like foam on the unyielding waves of the unimaginably powerful sea.

In sum, we are Not. In. Control.

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To be honest, I think God is a bit of a drama queen in this respect. She seems to enjoy engaging in The Big Production to remind us of our insignificance. Catastrophic floods. Burning bushes. Pillars of fire. The big voice, booming from on high.

As a stereotypical, attention-seeking Leo, I can’t really blame Her, I guess. Humans don’t tend to do subtlety well, and since She’s got the capability, why NOT make a splash?

So God gets Her mojo working, and it must have been a doozy. When the storm begins to rage, it doesn’t take long for both Jonah and his sailor friends to figure out what is going on. Some deity, somewhere, is *pissed* with one of them.

Now the Bible tells us they already knew that Jonah was running from God because he told them so, so I figure there was one of two things going on here.

Either they aren’t very bright, or (and this is my bet) several of them are on the run from God themselves, so they can’t be sure that Jonah is the sole cause of the Divine Disturbance. So they draw lots to find out—and Jonah gets the short straw.

As we shall see shortly, Jonah doesn’t seem to hold the value of his own life very dear. He tells them, “Throw me overboard. God is mad at me, not you.” To their credit, the sailors initially try to save him. They row and row until they are exhausted, trying desperately to reach land—but it doesn’t work. They resist Jonah’s solution to the problem for as long as they can because they don’t want his blood on their hands.

But, eventually, they recognize that there is nothing for it but to pitch him over the side.

(As a side note, several of those sailors repented and apparently made some sort of religioius vow to God. Which further confirms my theory...)

Years ago, I read somewhere that drowning was supposed to be a “peaceful” death---but I’m not sure I believe it. I can imagine Jonah struggling to keep his head above the crashing waves, then struggling even harder to breathe as he was pulled inexorably under. I can imagine the fear and the panic and the desperate, futile thrashing...

I have difficulty imagining, however, what it would be like to be swallowed by a giant fish.

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This story is such a part of our cultural landscape that I doubt many of us ever take the time to think about *that* aspect of it. Here’s Jonah, sinking deeper under the waves with each passing second, his life presumably flashing in front of his eyes, and the next thing he knows some gigantic, freakazoid fish is rushing toward him, its mouth growing ever wider---and swallows him whole.

If it had been me, I guarantee you my thought would have been: “This day is going from bad to worse…”

Once, when I was visiting an aquarium in Key West, Florida, I met a man who had almost been swallowed by a giant fish. My tour guide---a certified scuba diver---told of a dive when he accidentally backed into a grouper that was four times his (large, adult male) size.

The point of discovery came when the grouper latched on to his wetsuit-clad backside. No damage was ultimately done---but my guide talked about the incredible sucking power he felt in that grouper’s mouth and the rush of fear he had felt at the size of that giant fish. Until that moment, “grouper” had been something on the menu at his favorite restaurant---not this giant behemoth that threatened to turn him into the day’s “seafood special.”

Jonah didn’t even have the advantage of a wetsuit.

I doubt that spending three days in the guts of a big fish was all that much fun (for either Jonah or the fish). The irony is that it didn’t improve Jonah’s attitude toward God or the Ninevites one iota.

(To be continued...)